“The news hit me like a bucket of cold water,” said Alejaidys Morey, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who, up until this week, was planning to travel to the United States.
On Wednesday, the US announced it was expanding Title 42 — a pandemic-era provision that allows immigration officials to deport illegal migrants to Mexico on public health grounds — and introduced a new program allowing some Venezuelan migrants to apply to enter US ports of entry by air, with a cap of 24,000.
Both plans are designed to stop Venezuelans like Morey from entering illegally and dangerously across the US-Mexico border.
But many migrants already on the move tell CNN that the Biden administration’s decision leaves them in an agonized limbo, having already given up everything to begin the trek north.
They also point out that the new airport entry program favors the wealthy and well-connected — in other words, Venezuelans who can afford to fly north in the comfort of a plane.
The Venezuelan migration crisis is more acute than ever. More than seven million Venezuelans are now living abroad, fleeing a humanitarian crisis in their home country, according to new figures released this month by the United Nations.
Most live in other South American countries – there are more than two million in Colombia alone – but in recent months increasing numbers have begun to travel north to the United States via Central America and Mexico as living conditions worsen amid the Covid 19 pandemic worsening and and the global food crisis.
As a result, the number of Venezuelans arrested on the US southern border is skyrocketing. According to the Department of Homeland Security, up to 180,000 Venezuelans crossed the border last year.
Panama and Mexico form a geographic passage for overland travelers from South America. Under the new US migration rule, any migrant entering Panama or Mexico illegally is barred from the program.
The trip Morey, her husband Rodolfo and their three children planned would have been just that. They wanted to first travel to the town of Necocli in Colombia and then trek into Panama via the Darien Gap, a 100-kilometer stretch of jungle impassable by road.
Despite the myriad dangers, 150,000 migrants have crossed the border on foot so far this year, according to Panamanian authorities.
Morey, who is currently in Colombia, says returning to Venezuela is impossible. In 2018, her family sold their home in Santa Teresa del Tuy, an impoverished town about 30 kilometers southeast of Caracas, for $1,500 to pay for the trip to Colombia.
Now she feels thrown into limbo. Like so many others, she cannot afford to pay for a transcontinental flight – let alone for her entire family.
“Under these circumstances, I have nowhere to go… I’m afraid: what can I do?” Morey to CNN.
Their situation is the norm for most migrants currently traveling north.
“After so much pain, so many obstacles to overcome, we are now stuck. We are in Necocli and we have nowhere to go…” said a Venezuelan migrant, who only asked to be identified, José told CNN.
According to local authorities, up to 10,000 migrants are waiting in the city to cross the bay to the Darien Gap, but some are now reconsidering their next move.
“I’m in pain, I don’t know what to do now,” says Ender Dairen, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who planned to join a group traveling north from Ecuador. But his plans changed after speaking to fellow migrants online.
“A couple of friends are thinking about settling down somewhere between Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” he told CNN. “Everyone you talk to says the same thing: the whole line collapsed; we can’t travel anymore.”
Speaking to reporters Thursday, senior Homeland Security official Blas Nuñez-Neto said the goal is to reduce the number of migrants illegally approaching the U.S. southern border while providing a legal route for those who do .
But the plan drew rare criticism from members of the Venezuelan opposition, who are generally allied with Washington in their fight against Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro.
“The US government has announced cruel migration policies that make the situation of thousands of Venezuelans even more painful,” tweeted Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the few anti-Maduro leaders still living in Caracas.
Carlos Vecchio, the official representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Washington, also tweeted that the plan was “insufficient for the scale” of Venezuela’s migration crisis.
“We recognize the efforts of @POTUS to seek alternatives to the migration crisis through humanitarian parole to achieve orderly and safe migration for Venezuelans,” he said.
“But the announced 24,000 visas are not enough for the scale of the problem. A re-examination is required in this regard.”
The Venezuelan government has not commented on the new US policy.
But humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have joined criticism from others that 24,000 legal permits is not enough – and insist deportation of others to Mexico should not be allowed under Title 42.
“We are shocked by the Biden administration’s decision to begin the Title 42 expulsion of Venezuelans, a cruel and inhumane policy that has no basis in protecting public health and should have ended long ago,” Avril Benoit, Executive Director of MSF, said in a statement.
“While we welcome the introduction of a special humanitarian probation program for Venezuelans, ensuring safe routes to the US should be the norm, not the exception.”
That’s what legal activists argue Asylum seekers should have the opportunity to bring their cases to the US before they are dismissed.
Still, some migrants say they see a glimmer of hope in the Biden administration’s new stance.
Oscar Chacin, 44, a boxing instructor who for weeks considered traveling to the US via Central America, told CNN he now sees a legal route to migration.
“It’s even better for me. It’s going to make things worse for so many people, but it’s good for me,” he said. “I have relatives in the US, some friends and some former boxing students, some of whom will be able to sponsor me and my family.”
His son Oscar Alexander is already in Mexico and entered the country before the new US immigration regulations were announced.
“He will stay there now. He is already looking for a job and we will provide the documentation as soon as we find the sponsor,” Chacin said.
“Then we’ll wait for the paperwork. Maybe a year, maybe two, but we’ll make it, I’m sure!”